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Part 1

If all of Judaism could be summarized in one word, that word would be God.

When people around the world were worshiping thunder and wind, the Jews had but one word to say - God. When people were lionizing the Spartan and the gladiator, the Jews had but one word to say - God. When life and history called on people to revel in their basest nature, to dehumanize themselves and others, the Jews had but one word to say - God. And when, in every age, people searched for meaning, sanctity, and spirituality, the Jews had but one word to say - God.

"They were the first people to arrive at an abstract notion of God and to forbid his representation by images. No people has produced a greater historical impact from such comparatively insignificant origins and resources…"
J.M. Roberts, History of the World

"Above all, the Jews taught us how to rationalize the unknown. The result was monotheism and the three great religions that profess it. It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if they had never emerged."
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews

The United States of America was founded on the principle of separation of church and state and at the same time proclaims "…Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…" While it is tempting to see America as the leader in a worldwide embrace of secularism, the fact is the Gallup Organization has found that 96 percent of Americans believe in God and 90 percent pray regularly. Beyond the borders of America are another three and a half billion Christians and Moslems who worship the God that the Jews introduced to humankind.

It is safe to say that more people believe in God than watch the Super Bowl, MTV, or the World Cup. More people believe in God than communism, existentialism, and vegetarianism combined, and more people are invested in God than in the stock market. The difference is that people know what the words World Cup, communism, and stock market mean. The word God, however, is another story altogether. People tend to have a wide range of beliefs and ideas when it comes to God.

The goal of this series is to present a coherent picture of the classical Jewish understanding of God and His relationship to creation, to humankind, and to the Jewish people. Historically, it is the Jews who were the first to conceptualize the One transcendent God for humankind. To the Jews, however, God is far more than a concept. God and spirituality are, and always have been, at the heart of the Jewish life experience. Matters of the soul and spirituality are at least as intrinsic to Jewish living as are concerns about cholesterol levels and retirement plans.

It All Begins With God

God Is Unfathomable

It is impossible to define God in any meaningful way. Here's why:

We live in a world of startling and astonishing beauty. A wondrous three-D world of height, length and width. Far more than mathematical concepts, these three dimensions are the bricks and mortar of our environment and are inseparably linked to the existence of physical matter as well as space. Now suppose for a moment that we lived in a slightly less awesome two-D world, a world lacking height, for instance. I'd like you to actually try that as an imaginative exercise: before reading any further, take a couple of minutes, close your eyes, and try to imagine what your world would look like if it was heightless.



{ space for imagining }


As my kids would say, "That's totally weird." In the heightless world you imagined, everything was probably very flat—flat people, flat tugboats, even flat elephants. You see, a heightless world is one in which there is no height at all, not even a seventy-second of an inch. So in a truly two-dimensional heightless world, while objects could be long and wide, they would have to be so flat that a grain of sand would tower over them, and in truth, they'd be even flatter than that. Now do you know what my kids mean when they say, "That's totally weird"?

I'd like to take this exercise a little further. Imagine that you are now removing the dimension of length from your already heightless world. Good. Next try removing depth. Good. Now try to imagine squeezing an elephant into your dimensionless world. Tricky isn't it? But wait, it gets even weirder.

You are now imagining a nondimensional world, a world that can't possibly contain anything, because by removing all three dimensions you have not only eliminated all matter, you have also eliminated space. So even if you imagined a super-squished elephant, there would be nowhere to put him. Believe it or not there is still something else you can remove from this world. I know that it looks awfully empty already, but I want you to get rid of just one more little thing. I want you to get rid of time itself. This means that even if you could find your elephant, you couldn't do anything with him because doing always takes time (even a trillionth of a second), and there is no time.

You are now getting a sense of why the Jewish understanding of God is that He is unfathomable and why discussing what He is in any meaningful way is absurd. You see, God created the dimensions of height, length, and width; He created space and matter, and He also created time. This means that whatever God is—His being—the nature of His existence, is one that is totally independent of time, space, dimension, and matter. If He created the three-dimensional world of space and matter, then His existence is not confined or defined by these creations because His existence predates theirs. The same is true with time. He existed before time existed and therefore His existence is in no way bound or affected by time.

God is absolutely independent of everything that comprises the reality in which we live. We, being stuck as we are in a time-bound, three-dimensional existence, have no way of conceiving of a reality that could exist independent of all these attributes. So, if you had a hard time conceiving of a dimensionless elephant, you will never be able to grasp what God is.

But don't worry, neither is anybody else.

Read Part 2 Next
Table of Contents


Shimon Apisdorf is an award-winning author whose books have been read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. He has gained a world-wide reputation for his ability to extract the essence of classical Jewish wisdom and show how it can be relevant to issues facing the mind, heart and soul in today's world. Shimon grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and studied at the University of Cincinnati, Telshe Yeshiva of Cleveland and the Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He currently resides with his wife, Miriam, and their children in Baltimore. The Apisdorfs enjoy taking long walks, listening to the music of Sam Glaser and going to Orioles games.

Shimon can be reached at sjapisdorf@earthlink.net

Enjoyed Judaism in a Nutshell?
Other books by Shimon Apisdorf, available online at The Jewish Literacy Foundation.


 






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